Brooks Ramsey died yesterday at the age of 98, two weeks after his wife of 75 years, Rebecca, died at age 93.
Brooks was the first pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Their current pastor, Stephen Cook, texted me last night to let me know about Brooks; I was so sorry to hear it and so grateful for Stephen reaching out to let me know. Second Baptist is where I served as pastor before coming to Fort Worth and where I was fortunate to get to know Brooks. I can’t think of many people I admire more.
Brooks was a remarkable and brilliant man, kind and gentle, and also steadfast and strong in his commitment to the radical inclusivity of the love of God. He was always growing in his understanding of God, and he liked to say, “The integrity of love is more important than the purity of dogma.” My friend Steve Montgomery, former pastor at Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, called Brooks a renaissance man. He was talented and smart and curious. He loved to read and recite poetry. David Waters tells that Brooks won the Civitan Club golf tournament in the 1960s by one stroke by sinking a 60-foot putt on the 18th green. He also was offered a contract to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, but he turned it down. He studied violin as a child and took it up again later in life and was a member of the Germantown Symphony Orchestra for 25 years.
When I was the pastor of Second Baptist in Memphis, I admired and respected Brooks so much, and developing a friendship with him meant the world to me. That he would occasionally slip in the back of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning when I was preaching was such a great gift that he gave me. You know how powerful it is when someone you consider a hero gives you his blessing on your own work.
As a pastor in his young adult days, Brooks was an example of a person with tremendous gifts and talents who was committed to following Jesus with integrity even at great cost to his “success.”
Brooks attended Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. He was changed when he became friends with an African-American war veteran who, despite his service to our country, faced great discrimination in seminary and in life in general. Brooks’s first church out of Southwestern was in Albany, Georgia in the late 50s and early 60s. Some of the African-American pastors in that town asked him if he would support them in trying to secure voting rights for them. He did, and he paid a steep price. He was harassed and vilified. Ku Klux Klan members drove their cars in slow circles around the cul-de-sac where he lived.
When black civil rights workers in Albany tried to deliver a letter in favor of reconciliation to Ramsey’s church, the deacons had them arrested. Brooks was outraged.
“This is Christ’s church,” he said. “And neither I nor anyone else can build walls around it that He did not build! There is no white wall around this particular church and no colored wall around a black one. In my opinion, any group that calls itself a church should be open to all.”
Then he came to Second Baptist in Memphis in 1962. It was a new church in what at the time was the growing eastern edge of the city. Brooks was the first pastor, and it quickly became one of the fastest growing churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Soon they were averaging 1,000 or more people in attendance in worship on Sundays, and they built the current facility on a beautiful piece of property at Walnut Grove and Perkins.
But Memphis, as we know, in the late 1960s was a hotbed of racial tension and conflict in the civil rights movement. Brooks believed following Jesus compelled him to get involved, and he marched with Martin Luther King when he came to town during the sanitation workers strike. Brooks was the only white Baptist minister in Memphis to march with King.
Then, when King was killed in Memphis in 1968, Brooks joined an Episcopal priest, Catholic priest, and Jewish rabbi in marching from the Episcopal Cathedral to the mayor’s office downtown to demand that the mayor settle the sanitation workers strike and bring peace to a city on the edge of a race war.
A lot of the good people at Second Baptist, as you might expect, didn’t like their pastor doing that sort of thing in 1968, supporting Martin Luther King and civil rights, and all the rest. The deacons brought a motion at the end of a Sunday morning worship service to dismiss the pastor. In that moment, a man stood up and offered a substitute motion to dismiss the deacons instead of the pastor, and that motion passed.
The deacons left the church. So did about half of the rest of the members. The church never came close to being “the fastest growing church in the Southern Baptist Convention” again. But its identity was set. Thanks be to God.
Brooks ended up leaving soon after. You know how that goes; after a vote is taken on the pastor, it’s pretty hard for him to stay, even if he wins the vote. Brooks later became the pastor at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas for a short time, but ended up having to resign there after he participated in prayer service opposing the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, Vietnam in 1972.
Yes, Brooks occasionally got far enough ahead of his people that they mistook him for the enemy, as the saying goes. But as my wife Jamie said when I was telling her about Brooks this morning, he was more committed to integrity than longevity.
In 1973 Brooks and Rebecca moved back to Memphis, where he opened a counseling practice that he did the rest of his working years. And along the way, he built relationships with a number of different congregations, teaching and speaking. Every Thursday morning from 1998 to 2011, he taught a class at Idlewild Presbyterian on theology, psychology, literature, poetry, music, economics, baseball, and whatever other topic he was interested in.
Late in his life, Brooks said, ”I’m having a great life. I’m doing what I love with the people I love. I’m still learning, still growing in my faith. I don’t have as many answers as I used to, but I’m finding the questions a lot more interesting.”
In a sermon in 1965 at Second Baptist, Brooks said: “We want the comforts of religion, but we don’t want the costs of religion. We want the romance of religion, but we don’t want the responsibilities of religion. We like to hear God Almighty say to us, you have got a mansion in the sky in the future…but I have discovered in my ministry that when you sincerely try to do a work for God, it is going to cost you something.
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any man would be my disciple, let him deny self and take up his cross and follow me.’ A crossless religion is a Christless religion.”
Brooks knew this truth well and lived it.
I’m inordinately fond of a leadership lesson attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln supposedly said: “A compass… will point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and the deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… then what’s the use of knowing true north?”
Lincoln’s genius was to “keep long-term aspirations and immediate necessities in mind at the same time.” And I have definitely tried to make that a mark of my own leadership over the years, with some occasional success.
But Brooks Ramsey is a good reminder that there is tremendous value in those prophets who know true north and are willing to march straight ahead in that direction, even at great cost, even if they end up sinking in a swamp. We need people like Brooks to speak truth and shine light on the just and let us know clearly what is the right direction. Because many of us get so focused on skirting the swamp that we forget to consult the compass. Many of us can get so comfortable avoiding the swamp we forget about true north altogether.
That’s the use of knowing true north in your heart and soul. That’s the power of the north star, whatever the conditions are on the ground. It might take some of us awhile to catch up, but Brooks was such a bright light for us to see and follow.
Thank God for that. And thank God for my friend Brooks Ramsey.